What’s the biggest redfish you ever get?”
I carefully unclamp one hand from the rod grip and point a crooked finger at the sharply arced tip. “That would be the one at the end of my line right now,” I say to guide Todd Seither.
Everyone laughs, but the joke will be on me if I can’t keep this bull red from spitting the hook, here in Breton Sound about 70 miles south of New Orleans.
The laughter will come as often as the speckled trout and redfish on this August trip to the marshes and islands of the Mississippi River Delta, though the Cajuns and other Louisianans who live and work here have plenty of reason to weep. Hurricane Katrina passed through here 14 years ago as it roared up the Gulf of Mexico on its catastrophic way to The Big Easy. The Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded and gushed more than 4 million barrels of oil into these fish-rich waters in 2010, just 60 miles from this spot. And there’s something else that threatens their way of life. But right now, only my reel is wailing because the big red I’m trying to bring in has seen the boat and is making other plans.
Eventually, Seither cleanly nets the fish, which tapes out at 40 inches. It will be one of about a dozen bulls the three of us catch and release that morning, even though Seither says the fishing is “a little slow.” The bulls are smacking Z-man Jerk Shadz 18 inches under popping corks, tossed out on 7½-foot spinning rods with 3000 series reels loaded with 30-pound braid. I know this because that first bull almost yanked the rod from my hands when it crushed the shrimp, and I wanted to know what I might have to replace if this fishing kept up.
My fishing partners, Huk Gear’s Danny Carrier and Al Perkinson, high-five me. I’m grateful for their good company. At one point we have a triple bull hookup, and the photo of the three of us grinning and holding more than 50 pounds of redfish is now my screensaver.
I’ll meet other people on this trip who are doing more than saving photos of this place. They’re trying to save the place itself.
We’re at the fillet table at the Cajun Fishing Adventures lodge in Buras, Louisiana, our home for this three-day fishing trip. Two guides are filleting trout and redfish with Bubba electric knives. Four other guides are walking around, cleaning up their boats and prepping for the next day, stopping by the table occasionally. Everyone is drinking beer from cans. The ball- busting is nonstop.
One guide is cutting up a spotted trout not much bigger than the 12-inch minimum, and he is paying for it. “Hey, you making a sandwich? Because that fish is about as big as a slice of bread.”
Someone who was fishing near the river kept a largemouth that wouldn’t break any records, which elicits helpful species identification. “You think that’s a bass? That’s not a bass. That’s a perch dressed up as a bass.”
Four cats within scrap-throwing distance are watching intently from the weeds behind the fillet table but are careful to venture no closer. One of the guides tells me that Seither once offered $100 to anyone who could catch one of the near-feral felines — an impossibility, to be sure — but the fact that he had waited for several beers to go down before putting forth the offer tells me plenty about this lodge. I take a sip from my own can and hope more guides show up to add to the entertainment.
A big man strides past the fillet table and into the long boat shed. “Look at this guy, walking around like he own the place,” says one of the guides. The joke here is that the big guy does own the place.
Ryan Lambert opened the Cajun Fishing Adventures lodge in 2000 after years of guiding anglers throughout the region’s vast marshes and bayous. CFA is an hour-and-a-half drive south of New Orleans and far removed from most anything except outstanding fishing and duck hunting. The lodge can host and feed dozens at a time. Lambert loves the area — the land, the water, the fish, the people — and can get choked up when talking about its quiet beauty. He gets even more emotional when explaining how so much of it has disappeared.
“We’ve lost 2,000 square miles of land in the last 70 years,” says Lambert, 61, who has testified in Congress five times about the dire need to protect the Delta. “That’s an area the size of the Grand Canyon. You run your boat around here and look at your GPS, and a lot of the time it tells you you’re on dry land.”
The islands throughout the Mississippi River Delta — at 4,200 square miles, the seventh largest river delta on Earth — took eons to build. They were created from sediment that made its way down the river from points north. The sediment formed islands, which then were bisected by the flow, becoming bayous and allowing more sediment to be deposited down-current — repeating the process over and over for millennia. There are particles of Montana and Pennsylvania here, and Minnesota and New Mexico and other states in the watershed.
In the last 100 years, several things inhibited that island creation. One was levee construction for flood control and to allow unimpeded navigation, which disrupted the natural process of the river diverting its flow — and thus land-building sediment — through the Delta’s marshes and islands. The other was the carving of channels through existing islands to provide for oil and natural gas exploration and extraction. That channelization also allowed salt water to intrude northward.
“Redfish are 100 miles inland, where largemouth bass used to be,” Lambert says. That may sound like a benefit to a saltwater fisherman, but such intrusion killed off vegetation, destroyed natural estuaries and reduced habitat — and with it, the natural hurricane protection that the Delta provides to the coast. “One mile of land between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans reduces storm surge by one foot,” says Lambert, “but every spring, more land disappears. Now if a strong hurricane hits New Orleans head-on, that city is gone.”
Guide Joe DiMarco is leaning over the side of the boat, loudly addressing my redfish. “Hey red, you hear that? You going to Jersey!”
We are in the waters east of Buras, drifting with the tide along a low-lying grassy island as we cast plastics and poppers to the shoreline. There is no one and nothing around us except more water and islands.
The three of us have taken advantage of an increasingly fast trout and redfish bite on this drift. Earlier I had expressed interest in bringing home a redfish on the high side of the 16- to 27-inch slot limit. I have one on now that looks 2 feet long, and DiMarco is considerately informing the fish of its itinerary.
“Let’s get this fish in the boat before I get it a seat assignment,” I say.
DiMarco nets and boxes the fish, which has about a dozen smaller slot fish in it already. The four of us have caught and released three times that many trout and reds, and we still have hours of fishing left.
DiMarco, 58, knows how to get us into fish because he grew up in these marshes. Earlier we saw an alligator near the bank, prompting DiMarco to tell a story about going alligator hunting with his uncle out here, once hauling in a gator that was doing a good job playing dead until they got it into the boat. His uncle pulled out a revolver and shot the thrashing reptile in the head, the bullet piercing both skull and hull. “My uncle points at the hole and says to me, ‘Dry that off and put some duct tape on it.’ ” DiMarco gazes off to the distance, smiling.
I’m marveling out loud at the fishing as we drift, and as if on cue, DiMarco drops his Power Poles and points to a tablet-sized concrete square protruding about an inch above the surface at the mouth of a cove. It is the top of a U.S. Geologic Survey monument that had been erected on dry land years ago. “This whole cove was part of the island once,” says DiMarco, who’s no longer smiling.
More water does not equal better fishing. In fact, it’s the opposite, says Chris Macaluso, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership’s Center for Marine Fisheries. Macaluso, who’s with us on this trip, is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is intimately familiar with the Delta’s challenges. “Fish need land,” he says, “because they need that transitional habitat from land to shoreline to water. Crabs, shrimp, mullet — that’s where the food is. Juvenile reds and trout use it to escape from predators.”
The Delta needs constant sediment replenishment from the Mississippi River for islands to form and remain islands. “First, sediment finds a hole and begins filling it,” Macaluso says. “Eventually that hole gets shallow enough to grow aquatic vegetation, which starts filtering sediment. It falls to the bottom, piling up until the vegetation emerges above the water. Then other marsh plants start growing. What was once a mud flat is now above the waterline.”
Without sediment replenishment, subsidence causes the islands to disappear. There’s no bedrock beneath the marsh, and as the land gets heavier and the water squeezes out, it sinks, allowing water to get on top and washing everything away.
Sea-level rise is an additional concern, Macaluso points out, because as the land sinks, the water gradually gets higher. Other areas are threatened simply because water levels are rising, but Louisiana also is sinking, making it vulnerable to rising seas. “With sediment spilling into surrounding marshes, the river will find a way to continue to build wetland,” Macaluso says. “Without it, the Gulf of Mexico will keep taking over.”
Guide Todd Seither, 44, summarizes the situation pithily: “We lost a f***-ton of land.”
One with the Water
Terry Lambert, the brother of lodge owner Ryan, sidles up to me after breakfast at the lodge. “So Jersey Mike, I heard you was the windshield and not the bug yesterday.”
Not only have I gained a nickname on this trip, I’ve also just been given a Cajun-style compliment about my fishing. I’m thinking tattoos when I get home.
“We’re going to chase some trout today,” he says. “Get your stuff, and let’s go.”
We head out and launch just across the road from the lodge. Two miles off, we start fishing, and the specks smack our plastics right away. All around us are shrimp trawlers and crab-pot markers. Other boats are heading in and out. The amount of marine life here is staggering, as are the stark reminders of the price of access. So many buildings, from houses to high schools, are high up on stilts because the water is always right there, behind you and in front of you. It’s not uncommon to see an otherwise typical home, with holiday decorations and a satellite dish and a barbecue grill, lifted 20 feet off the ground with an elevator bolted alongside.
Terry points to the water between us and the shoreline. “There used to be an island here,” he says. It disappeared before his eyes over the years.
His brother Ryan, rather than lament the loss, has done something Will Rogers said was impossible: make land. With a $1 million North American Wetlands Conservation Act Grant (after waiting three years for the permits), Lambert began constructing diversion canals in 2006, letting river water flow into a flat where it deposited sediment on terraces that he built there. It’s all land now. The damage to the Delta, he proved, can be reversed.
Lambert sits on the front porch of his lodge, talking about how much he loves the area, his business, his life, even with all the challenges and setbacks. “We had 24 feet of water in the lodge during Katrina,” he says. “The water was levee to levee. That storm slowed, stopped and then reversed the Mississippi River flow.” Lambert shakes his head at the memory, then looks out at the Louisiana sky and the dike beyond, smiling. “Man, I love it here. So how was the fishing?
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Anglers Journal.